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Designer Diary: Zombie Slam, or Two Brains Are Better Than None

Sen-Foong Lim
Canada
London
Ontario
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Welcome to the Bamboozle Brothers' designer diary for their latest release Zombie Slam, published by Mercury Games. What terrifying twists and turns did this ghoulish game of quick reaction take before reaching its final, frightening form? Read on, dear gamer...if you dare!

Jay:
Zombie Slam actually started off as a children's game, if you can believe that! Originally, we called it "Bertolt's Jungle Jam". For over twenty years, I've been performing my own children's show called "The Adventures of Bertolt". When Sen and I started to make games, I thought it would be neat to have a game set in the world of Bertolt that I could sell along with other merchandise at my shows, so we started with a quick reaction game as that mechanism seemed to match my audience and my character.


The brain fart that started it all


Jay as Bertolt!
Sen:
We wanted to add something new to this genre as there were already a few notable quick reaction games out when we first started designing "Jungle Jam" about ten years ago. Our twist was that we added audio cues. We wanted to take hand-eye coordination to the next level. Players would have to first hear the clue, process what that meant, locate the correct target visually, then quickly and accurately SLAM the target item! In the case of "Jungle Jam", we were calling out numbers, colors, and types of fruits, with players trying to squash the right things to make delicious jellied preserves!

Jay:
When we first pitched the game to publishers, we had this grandiose idea that it would come with this big plastic Bertolt-shaped head. Players would press his trademark pith helmet to receive the next request! I distinctly remember our original sales sheet pointing out that this game would be easily transferred to another character or IP! As a proof-of-concept, we had our university roommate, Errol Elumir, make us a simple Flash-based program that would read out lines of random dialogue that formed the requests. We had to retitle the game to "Jam Slam" to avoid confusion with another quick reaction game that had come out around the same time we were pitching this one…

Original logo design
Sen:
Oddly enough, Jay also had to change the name of his show from "Bertolt the Explorer" to "The Adventures of Bertolt" for similar reasons…

"Jam Slam" was a finalist in the Canadian Game Design Award in 2011. Maybe it was because we included these hilarious hand-shaped swatters we had people use to smack the target cards with? That wasn't enough, however, to get the game signed. While many enjoyed it and several took it for evaluation, the end result was a no. The key piece of feedback we received was that publishers felt that, though the game was good, it was too difficult for the proposed audience. Thus, we were left with a game that worked better for an older audience mixed with a family-friendly theme, suited to a younger audience. It was time to go back to the proverbial drawing board.

Jay:
While mulling over our collective failure as game designers, Sen took to the forum we use to communicate and keep track of all our ideas and jokingly wrote, after seeing the success of titles like CMON's Zombicide, "Well, why don't we just make the game for adults and make it about zombies?" He was being flippant, but I felt like Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day:

"Pops, you're a genius!"

We busied ourselves converting the once kid-friendly game into an undead-friendly game and, quicker than you can say "Night of the Living Dead", "Jam Slam" became Zombie Slam. The best part of the conversion process is that we came up with new mechanisms due to the thematic switch!

The new, zombie-fied logo
Sen:
Some of the conversion was simple: the different fruit became different pieces of survival gear; the jam jars you once filled with fruit became backpacks you hauled around with all the stuff you claimed. Easy-peasy. No big deal. Where the magic happened was when we started to let ourselves really play with this theme. What would you really need to do to survive the zombie apocalypse? What might make this world even deadlier than a jungle filled with fruit?

Jay:
Well, first, we added hazards. At the start of each round, you are dealt out a hazard that you have to resolve by the end of the round. Hazards force you to use up some of your supplies to survive another day. But what if you failed to resolve the hazard? We didn't want player elimination, so we toyed with giving players health points — but that just led to the question of what happens when you eventually run out of health points?

Sen:
This is yet another example of a lesson we seem to still be learning: Sometimes you just have to do the opposite of what you think you should do. We couldn't seem to design our way out of player elimination in this case, so...what exactly would happen not if, but when, a player died?


One of these players looks less dead than the other...


Jay:
The key to the game's final design was understanding the goal for players who had now "died". If you were the only human living, then that was pretty simple — you won! But if everyone was a zombie, then there would need to be a way to grade just how zealous a zombie you were in your afterlife.

We developed the concept of human stragglers. You know, like Newt in Aliens? Those characters who are typically plot devices to make the main characters take needless risks and look heroic while doing it? These stragglers would be "attached" to a specific card on the table. If you slammed that card, you would also gain that straggler. As a human player, you would reduce your supply of cards by one for every straggler you had following you — and they persisted from round to round!


Save the stragglers! Or eat them...your choice


Sen:
As a zombie player, you WANT to slam those cards, absorbing each straggler into your very own zombie horde! The zombie player with the biggest horde at the end of the game wins — but only if all players have become zombies. This worked, and we pushed towards more players becoming zombies by enforcing a simple rule: If you can't have a full backpack (four unique cards) at the end of a round, you turn into a zombie!

Jay:
Everything was working, but still lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. Zombie players were relegated to slamming cards that had stragglers attached to them. Our playtesters wanted to be able to actively turn the human players into zombies! Being good designers, we listened to our playtesters and came up with the idea that when a zombie player makes a backpack, they immediately shout "Zombie Slam!" and give an additional hazard card to a human player of their choice. This turned out to be the secret sauce!

Sen:
Players now had more control as they could go for points by slamming cards with stragglers or they could go for cards that filled backpacks to try to make life harder for a human player. Everything seemed to be lurching along nicely now!


We paid homage to some of our favorite zombie films


Jay:
We started pitching the game again and got immediate interest. We eventually signed with Mercury Games because they were committed to making Zombie Slam an app-assisted game, something we knew would be critical for the best possible play experience. To help with this, we suggested Eric Raue who is not only a seasoned app developer, but a fellow member of the Game Artisans of Canada. We had a strong working relationship with Eric and communicated well with him. It was great to be able to have someone programming the app who understands game design and who's played the game as well! Together with Mercury, we brainstormed ways to really utilize the power of the app.

Sen:
In its original incarnation, there were only twelve lines of dialogue, repeated in different ways. We wanted to make the game world come alive with interesting characters and settings — more cinematic! To do that, we developed four locations for the game — the hospital, the store, the house, and the gas station — which lead to us designing in unique benefits to each location when using the app. The whole world was becoming more and more cohesive with each addition!

Jay:
We then asked ourselves who the players really were. Now that we had access to an app with visuals, it felt odd to add another character who just barked instructions to the players, especially if that character could never turn into a zombie. After talking it over with Eric, we figured out how to give each player a character within the app, then have only those characters talk during the game if they're still human. This was all well and good, except it meant we were now creating dialogue for six characters instead of one and in four locations instead of none. Multiply these changes by the new play modes, and those paltry twelve lines of dialogue ballooned into over one thousand unique pieces of dialogue!

Sen:
And to add to the confusion, there was the possibility that all the players could be zombies for a round or two. Who would then be making requests? Certainly not a zombie! Instead, we created a news reporter who takes over the storyline, narrating everything while making the requests.


We also paid homage to one of our favorite animated shows of all time


So while Jay was recording the dialogue in Vancouver, I was in my studio in London, composing the soundtrack and curating the sound effects. Not only is the dialogue for each location different, but the sound effects vary as well. For example, there are sounds of wheelchairs rolling and scalpels clattering in the hospital that you won't hear in the gas station. It's those little atmospheric touches that give players an enhanced experience that only the app can provide!

Jay:
Eric was working to plug this all into the app while Paola Tuazon was providing the bulk of the art assets. Every day, something new was popping up from one of them or the publishers as we pushed towards the finish line. After that, we playtested the game with the app build before it was pushed to Google Play and the App Store. Add one last minute rule tweak to the game, and we could finally hit print on this one!

Sen:
All in all, Zombie Slam was an amazing project to work on. We got to do a lot of cool stuff with dialogue and music, we got to work closely with Eric on creating a meaningful app, and we got to pay homage to some of our favorite zombie shows in that app. Jay and I learned a ton about game design and app integration on this one. You could almost say that we got more...braaaaiiiiinnnssssssss!!!


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